Bottom line: Judas Priest forged, in iron and molten steel, the very foundation of heavy metal. The stoned-out, low-end pummeling of Black Sabbath seems a distant cousin to Priest's screeching-eagle sound. And this week at Ozzfest, you'll find out which style aged better.
Bet on Rob Halford. Unlike their neo-satanic brethren, historically the Priest boys have largely concerned themselves with individual rights -- specifically, the right to drink, fornicate, and trash respectable establishments without Big Brother breathing down their necks. Taking metal further than anyone thought possible, the band's overdramatic vision encompassed spectacular motorcycle accidents, depraved macho fantasies (with nary a mention of women), and revelry of the sort unheard of since Caesar's day.
Judas Priest clearly didn't meddle with angst, funky haircuts, or whining complaints of parental abuse, as have so many modern metal acts seemingly born in Wal-Mart parking lots or Halloween costume closeout sales. The almighty Priest embodied, in essence, the lone rebel on a motorcycle, cruising into the sun after a night of rippin' up the town. The band fed into an unhinged, adolescent hard-on fantasy of burning rubber, turbo speed, and oversexed humping, and did so in a spectacular, grandiose, Andrew Lloyd Webber-like manner.
Recently, this fierce dragon has returned to roam distant forests and lonely highways with notorious lightbulb-shattering screamer Rob Halford, apart from the band for twelve years, once again at its head. The band has glommed onto Ozzfest, touring with fellow reunited metal patriarchs Black Sabbath. A new album is in the can, and unlike other cash-grab reunions, Judas Priest, though often gray-haired and a bit flabby, still seem capable of generating implausibly fierce music.
Consider: The last Priest album with this lineup, 1990's Painkiller, kicked booty. Halford's most recent solo act (conveniently named Halford) was as heavy as an anvil landing on a warlock's foot. And furthermore, only a handful of metal singers can still nail the sort of high notes that Halford spits out with ease.
Verily, this upcoming record will feature screaming, vengeance, and overall excellence.
"The new album will be very much in the tradition of past Priest records, keeping with our heritage," Halford explains over the phone. "I don't want to reveal too much about it. But there is a Lord of the Rings-like epic song, which I believe will be another Judas Priest classic. And there's a bit of a J.K. Rowling influence on the record too. It will reflect everything we've done from Sad Wings of Destiny to Painkiller, and Priestheads will be satisfied. We're looking at the artwork right now and have a couple of ideas for a title -- after the Ozzfest tour, we'll get to mixing the record."
Halford is thrilled to be hanging out again with his old bandmates (dual guitar wizards Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill, and drummer Scott Travis). For the Ozzfest tour, Halford says Priest fans will get what they'd expect: a sampling of the band's masterworks, and the suitably theatrical return of the hellion himself, onstage astride his favorite stage prop.
"The motorcycle is sort of like Angus Young's school pants," he admits. "It's definitely cartoonish. But it's what the fans expect, and what they'll get."
Judas Priest originally came together in 1970 in the industrial netherworld of Birmingham, England, which served as an inspiration with its crummy weather, pollution, and factory blight. Halford joined the band a few years later, whereupon the band released its forgettable debut album, Rocka Rolla, featuring a long-haired Halford presiding over a prog rock sound. (Neither the prog nor the flowing locks lasted.) Priest's next album, Sad Wings of Destiny (Halford's favorite in the catalogue), established a heavier sound but not-quite-galloping-yet guitars.
Incidentally, Destiny's "The Ripper," written from the perspective of Jack the Ripper, marked the band's first song involving a rapist protagonist. But not the last.
British Steel (1980) marked Priest's first huge success, featuring two of the band's most defiant singles, "Living After Midnight" and "Breaking the Law." And in the early-'80s metal heyday, Judas Priest peaked with the gargantuan riffs and byzantine solos of Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith, two albums that alone embody heavy metal with such hits as "You've Got Another Thing Comin'," the semi-explicit rape fantasy "Eat Me Alive," the paranoid Orwellian sci-fi number "Electric Eye," and the veiled S&M tribute "Pain and Pleasure."
After Halford left the band to pursue other musical projects (Fight, Two, and Halford), Downing, Tipton, and the gang famously recruited Tim "Ripper" Owens, singer in an Ohio Judas Priest cover band, to fill in. (The story inspired the Mark Wahlberg flick Rock Star.) In 1997, Priest released Jugulator, a decent album that nonetheless lacked Halford's unique, masculine vision. Though Owens could scream, it definitely marked Priest's weakest phase.
It was also in the late '90s that Halford announced his homosexuality, shocking thousands of supermasculine Priest-adoring heshers across the globe. For whatever reason, music fans seem to lack gaydar, as is obvious from the surprise that also greeted the outing of Queen's Freddie Mercury and George Michael. (All three had an excessive fixation with studded leather.)
That's shock, not disdain. "It's a myth that I received any flak from the metal community over my decision to come out," Halford says now. "I have, in fact, received numerous positive responses from fans, as well as e-mails from people who were going through much the same thing. It's horrible to keep something like that secret, and I felt I had to make it public. I discovered that I was gay when I was about nine or ten. I did go out with girls for a while, but it didn't last."
However, Halford's leather obsession is now strictly for the stage.
"I like to remain somewhat anonymous," he says. "I could never handle the whole Britney Spears syndrome of being noticed everywhere. I enjoy being able to shop at Ralph's without being bothered. So the leather getup is really an onstage uniform. You don't wear a three-piece suit to go play basketball."
Don't expect anything revolutionary from Judas Priest. There will be no rap-rock songs or dreadlocks adorning these venerable metal gods. After a couple decades' worth of dedication to all things manly and metallic (as well as album after album of unrivaled, flaming mayhem), Judas Priest will simply once again uncoil and spit out its deadly venom upon the masses of shrieking metal zealots, who will undoubtedly headbang like possessed lunatics and merge into a sea of two-fingered devil horns.
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